Failure is never final

“Not all failure is terminal”, wrote Emma Ineson in her book Failure: What Jesus said about sin, mistakes and messing stuff up. “The question is not ‘Will there be failure’, but what will we do about it and what will we do with it”. What is true about people in general is, of course, true of ministers. For along with the good times in ministry, there are also the bad times when everything goes wrong and under the pressure of it all we end up feeling a total failure.

But thank God failure is never final. If we will allow him, God offers us an opportunity to begin again. This is the theme of one of the chapters in Conversations by the Sea, a book published just a year ago, which Andrew Rollinson entitles ‘Ministry Failure and Restoration’. “The good news of Jesus is that there is always hope. God’s redeeming power knows no limit”.

I want to look at how Jesus dealt with Peter, after Peter had denied him three times on that fateful night when the religious authorities of the day stitched up the evidence to ensure that Pilate had no other option but to sentence Jesus to death by crucifixion. Although Peter had well and truly failed his Lord, Jesus gave him an opportunity to begin again. What was true of Peter remains true for all of us, ministers and non-ministers alike.

John tells us that when Peter and his friends “stepped ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there with fish on it and some bread” (John 21.9). I wonder whether the very sight of that charcoal fire made Peter wince. For it was by a charcoal fire in the courtyard of the high priest that Peter had denied his Lord (John 18.18). It seems as if Jesus by building that charcoal fire was deliberately seeking to recreate the setting in which Peter denied him. According to the Anglican scholar Mark Stibbe the fire can be likened to “a trigger mechanism, stimulating Peter into remembering his denials as opposed to denying them… Jesus triggers his ‘shame circuits’ in order to help him towards the wholeness he will need in order to be a true shepherd of the sheep”.

Certainly, the three-fold questioning of Peter was designed to recall his three-fold denial of Jesus. It must have been an extraordinarily painful conversation for Peter, and even more so as Jesus called him by his old name, Simon: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” (John 21.15, 16, 17). Jesus does not address him as Peter, the name Jesus gave him at Caesarea Philippi, when Peter had confessed Jesus to be the Christ, the Son of the Living God (Matt 16.18). By using his old name, Jesus was challenging his very friendship.

Not surprisingly John tells us: “Peter felt hurt” because Jesus said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?'” (John 21.17). I can imagine the sweat pouring down Peter’s face. Jesus by reminding him of his past failure, was well and truly twisting in the knife. But as they say, “no pain, no gain“. The painful business of facing up to his past failure was essential if Peter were to make a new beginning. Forgiveness only becomes complete as we face up to our past failures. As John wrote in his First Letter: “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1.9). Thankfully, Peter was not simply reminded of his past failure. He was also given an opportunity to obliterate this three-fold failure, by re-affirming his love for Jesus. Three times Jesus asked: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” (John 21.15, 16, 17). Twice Peter replied: “Yes Lord; you know that I love you” (John 21.15, 16). On the third occasion Peter declared: “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you” (John 21.17).

Each time Peter declared his love for him, Jesus in response restored Peter to ministry by commanding him first to ‘feed my lambs” (John 21.15), secondly to “tend my sheep” (John 21.7), and then finally to “feed my sheep” (John 21.17). There has been much discussion as to whether there is any significant difference between these three tasks or if they are just variations on the same theme. The general scholarly opinion is that John is using synonyms, and that there is no significant difference.

Jesus, however, was not finished with Peter, for he went on to give one further command: “Follow me” (John 21.19). And what did Peter do? John tells us that immediately “Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them and … said to Jesus, ‘Lord what about him” (John 21.20,21). But Jesus replied, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!” (John 21.22). Like Peter, time and again we too compare ourselves with others. But Jesus calls us to focus on him, and not others. The fact is that God has a distinctive plan for each of our lives.

The great thing is that when we do, in the words of Emma Ineson “mess up”, failure is never final. Here indeed is good news to proclaim.

One comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *